THIS WEEK: Valpo at Western Illinois (Friday, 7:00 p.m.) & Valpo at UMKC (Saturday, 7:00 p.m.)
THE MATCHUPS: After four straight matches at the Athletics-Recreation Center, the Crusaders are back on the road this weekend for a pair of conference tilts against Western Illinois and UMKC. Valpo spent the first 13 matches of the season away from their home floor going 8-5, but will play their first road Mid-Con matches of the year Friday and Saturday nights. The Brown and Gold lost their first conference match of the season last week, and have not lost more than once in the Mid-Con in any season since 2002. The Crusaders are 42-3 in the Mid-Con since 2003, and have lost only one road conference match in the last four seasons.
VALPO LAST WEEK: Valpo split a pair of home matches, falling Friday night in a classic against preseason Mid-Con favorite Oral Roberts in five games before sweeping Centenary Saturday. The Crusaders lost the first two games Friday night before rallying to take games three and four but losing a dramatic fifth game thanks to a late Golden Eagle surge. Saturday's match saw the home team hit .371 with 13.0 blocks en route to a comfortable win over the Ladies. The Homecoming weekend saw Valpo draw nearly 1,800 fans over the two matches.
SCOUTING WESTERN ILLINOIS: The Westerwinds were as happy as anyone to move into the conference season after suffering to 0-6 and 3-10 starts to the 2006 season. Western Illinois is undefeated, however, in the Mid-Con at 2-0 and unbeaten at home where they have won three times. Last week, the Westerwinds won on the road at Chicago State and IUPUI, one week after defeating UMKC in Kansas City. Jennifer Alexander, the defending Mid-Con co-Defensive Player of the Year, is having another big season with a conference-leading 5.61digs/game average. Offensively, Ashley Baker has been excellent, leading the league with a .367 hitting percentage. All-time, Valpo holds a 25-5 edge over Western Illinois, including 12 wins in a row since the 1999 season.
SCOUTING UMKC: It's been a tough start to 2006 for first year head coach Chrissy Elder, who was promoted into the top job in early August. The Kangaroos took 13 matches for get Elder her first win as a head coach, but did so on September 15 with a five-game victory over Lamar. In the Mid-Con so far, UMKC is 0-2 after dropping a four-game decision to Western Illinois at home before being swept at IUPUI. Sophomore Jacqui Wood has been the Kangaroos top player on the frontline with a team-high 142 kills and 49 blocks. The all-time series between Valpo and UMKC dates back to 1994, with the Crusaders holding a comfortable 19-8 advantage. The Brown and Gold have taken eight straight in the series since a three-game road loss in 2002.
MID-CON REIGN: Since 2003, the Crusaders have enjoyed one of the most dominant runs in Mid-Con history in any sport, winning three straight regular season and tournament championships and posting an impressive 42-3 record. That stretch includes only one loss on the road in conference, and that came last year when the Brown and Gold fell in five games in Tulsa, Okla. against Oral Roberts. Each of Valpo's last two conference losses have come to the Golden Eagles and the last three losses all came in five games (including 2003 at home against IUPUI). The Crusaders are trying to become only the second team in conference history to win four consecutive titles, joining only Oral Roberts, who won six straight championships upon entering the league, a run that lasted from 1997 through 2002.
THE MID-CON'S FINEST: As a team, the Brown and Gold rank in the top two in the conference in hitting percentage, kills/game, assists/game and blocks/game this season. Individually, Valpo has nine players ranked in the top five in the six major statistical categories. The Crusaders have done so with a balanced attack, however, with no single player ranking higher than second in any category.
YOUTH MOVEMENT: The 2006 Crusaders are younger than any Valpo team in a long time, with several freshmen and sophomore receiving major playing time, and other seldom-used upperclassmen thrust into the spotlight. There are only two seniors, Jessie Fox and Alex Chism on the squad, and three players, Nicole Schulz, Allison Sears and Sara Hughes have higher statistical totals this season than they had during their entire careers before the 2006 campaign.
PRESEASON POLL: The Mid-Con's seven head coaches picked the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles to end Valpo's run at the top of the league this season, and so far they've been right on, with the Crusaders sitting third in the league at 3-1. In the preseason poll, Valpo checked in second with Western Illinois third, IUPUI fourth, Oakland fifth, UMKC sixth and Centenary seventh. The Westerwinds earned the one first place vote not given to the Golden Eagles in the league.
SHARP-SHOOTIN' SCHULZ: Standout junior Nicole Schulz has been Valpo's most well-rounded player since the start of the 2006 season. The Kewaskum, Wis. native played in only 28 games during her first two seasons in the Brown and Gold, but has seen the court in 60 of 61 games this season. Schulz is Valpo's top attacker in terms of hitting percentage, ranking third in the Mid-Con with a .317 attacking mark. Schulz also leads the Crusaders in blocks with 73, and sits second in the league with a 1.22 blocks/game average. If the junior does maintain her current hitting percentage, although there are still at least 17 matches left in the season, would be the best attacking mark in program history, besting Kelly Schoenhoft's eight-year-old record of a .311 hitting percentage.
NOT JUST BLOCKS FOR FOX: While senior Jessie Fox ranks among Valpo's all-time leaders in total blocks (she ranked fifth entering the weekend), she's also a very dangerous player offensively. Against ORU Friday, Fox had 12 kills and followed that effort up with 10 more kills against the Ladies on Saturday. The senior has reached double-figure kills in five straight matches and 10 times overall this year. Fox's career total of 878 kills is just over 100 shy of 10th place all-time, and the Granger, Ind. native is on pace to join Lauren Moulton as the only Crusaders to ever accumulate 1,000 kills and 400 blocks in a career.
SETTING RECORD MARKS: Sophomore libero Brittany Marks is enjoying the best backline season in school history through the first 17 matches of the year. Marks set Valpo's three-game single-match digs record back on September 9 against Drake when she piled up 30 against the Bulldogs. Then last week, the Elkhart, Ind. native posted 33 digs against Oral Roberts, the fourth-highest single-match total, regardless of length. Marks is also on pace to become the first Valpo player to ever average over 5.00 digs/game over a full season, currently ranking third in the Mid-Con at 5.20 digs/game.
AGAIN, IT'S ANGIE: Only a freshman, Angie Porché has already become Valpo's number one attacking weapon. The 2005 Northwest Indiana Times High School Player of the Year, Porché has led the Crusaders in kills seven times this year, and has reached double-figures in kills 11 times in 17 matches. Porché's 17 kills on Friday led the way for the Brown and Gold, and she hit .421 with nine kills on Saturday. The freshman is Valpo's leader in kills this season with 3.48/game, third in the Mid-Con, and is trying to become the first Crusader freshman since Lauren Struss in 1992 to lead the team in kills.
MEIKLE SPARKS COMEBACK: Junior Tiffany Meikle, who saw her playing time diminish in recent matches thanks to the emergence of freshman Val Bollenbacher, was thrown into the Crusader lineup after a sloppy start Friday against Oral Roberts and she responded with some inspired play. Meikle's biggest impact was felt in game three when, with the Crusaders down two games to none, she sent down four kills on six attacks and added two digs and a block to bring the Brown and Gold back in the match with a 30-22 game win. Meikle finished the night with seven kills, three aces, 12 digs and two blocks against ORU, her best statistical effort in nearly a month.
SNEAKY SEARS STAYS STRONG: Without the fanfare of some of her teammates, sophomore hitter Allison Sears is putting together a very strong season, ranking third on the team in kills and blocks. Sears is one of three Crusaders averaging over 3.00 kills/game and the Elkhart, Ind. native has reached double-digit kills in four of the last five matches this year.
NOT JUST A SETTER: Junior Sara Hughes showed off her versatility last weekend, doing a lot more than piling up assists. Hughes had 11 digs and three blocks in Friday's loss and came back Saturday with five kills, eight digs and two blocks. Of course, the assists are still there too as Hughes ranks second in the Mid-Con this season with a 10.57 assist/game average.